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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 16:36 GMT
Community spirit crosses Belfast's lines
Nicola Harkins, the bride in Belfast community theatre play The Wedding The bride, played by Nicola Harkins, with other cast members

By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

Love where love shouldn't exist has been done to death ever since Juliet asked wherefore art her Romeo.

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But a community theatre production in Belfast confounded the critics when their play, The Wedding, brought a story of a cross-community marriage to its audience with devastating effect.

The play, the star of the Belfast Festival, was not only performed by members of Catholic and Protestant community theatre groups, it was actually played out in their homes.

The action took place in the predominantly working class area of Protestant East Belfast.

Maureen Harkins of Ballybeen Theatre Group Maureen Harkins: "Process challenged perceptions"
There, the audience entered the "real homes" of Geordie and Jean Marshall, in the Templemore Avenue area, and Margaret and Sammy Todd, in the Catholic enclave of Short Strand.

It was the morning of Nicola Marshall's marriage to Damien Kelly, son of Margaret.

With both families having uncomfortable links to the paramilitaries through relatives, the day was not a happy occasion.

The audience was first split into two groups and bussed to one of the homes where the action was played out in each room.

The critics
'Utterly wondrous'
'One of the most affecting pieces I have ever seen'
But what made the play all the more poignant was that they were then bussed to the second home - only streets away but separated by one of Belfast's infamous "peace lines", walls that keep warring communities apart.

To go from act one to act two, the audience completed a physical journey across a divided city.

Finally, the entire audience came together at the wedding service followed by the reception in a nearby hostelry.

'Breaking the mould'

Reviewers, including those writing for the national press, judged it as the best show of the festival and there are calls for a second run.

Jo Egan, one of the co-directors of the production which was backed by Northern Ireland's Community Arts Forum, said that The Wedding broke the mould for community theatre which emphasises the process that the participants experience as well as the product an audience sees.

A member of the cast of The Wedding Cast members played parts on other side of the divide
The groups chose Short Strand because it was one of the more likely parts of working class Belfast to have seen mixed marriages, simply because of how close the communities live to each other.

Jo Egan's colleague, Maureen Harkins, who also took a part in the play, said that Short Strand summed up many of the issues of a divided city.

"Short Strand is such a small Catholic community that the men would come and go from the area in a certain way just to avoid the risk of passing into the Protestant area.

It was very important for the issues that we wanted to tackle to work in an area where the people affected would be living very close to each other."

The "process" involved the cast and crew drawn from both sides of the divide, experiencing inevitable "pain" as they confronted their own characters, upbringing and heritage as they created the script with professional writers Martin Lynch and Marie Jones.

Many members of the 50-strong cast and crew found the concept of going into another community's area difficult and some members of Protestant groups, including Maureen Harkins, felt that their communities had been grossly misrepresented in other productions.

This, they believed, was an opportunity to strike a balance for both sides, an honest exploration for themselves as well as for the audience.

Paramilitaries approached

A critical issue was ensuring that members of the community were kept informed of the production's aims.

The reaction (from the paramilitaries) was brilliant - but we weren't seeking their blessing
Maureen Harkins
The project began by quietly approaching the paramilitary groups because, Maureen explains, "there are certain things that you don't do in Belfast without doing something else first."

While they received a "brilliant reaction" from the armed groups, some members of the ordinary Protestant community, where theatre is not as widely recognised as it is in the Catholic community, reportedly sought to influence the project without signing up to its ideals.

But the key principle was that the project was not in the business of "converting people", said Jo.

"This play was about giving people the right to say what they wanted to say about who they were," she said.

"When we were holding the workshops, a vital part of the community theatre process, we were asking everyone, ourselves, to go down deep and examine themselves."

Community theatre
"We also ensured that we carried out our research in the communities to help them understand what we were trying to achieve.

"We didn't want to be seen to be just parachuting in."

The end result was a play that not only profoundly touched its audience but also had a deep impact on its cast and crew.

"This process saw people taking their lives very, very seriously," said Jo.

"This wasn't just about the bread and butter issues of their lives.

"This was people, including ourselves, putting themselves through the wringer."

While the critics have lauded the play and there is pressure for a re-run, the groups are reticent to agree.

"Critics are usually very scathing about community theatre, dismissing the importance of the process and patronising the product," said Jo.

"By the end of this production, they regarded the cast as more than just community actors.

"But to run the play again would mean that it would become more of a commercial enterprise, and not about the process, which is the last thing that we wanted. The project played its part."

Maureen Harkins agreed. "I think that the play has had its moment and achieved what it set out to achieve."

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01 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
All aboard Belfast's terror tour

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